The members of the State College baseball team held up three fingers as they posed for photos with the District 6 Class AAAA championship trophy Tuesday.
The second-seeded Little Lions had just clinched their third straight title with a 6-3 win over top-seeded Altoona at Peoples Natural Gas Field. They could finally smile after erasing a one-run deficit with a four-run sixth inning to accomplish one of their preseason goals.
When the Little Lions broke their final huddle, they celebrated their championship run again.
“Three-peat,” they said in unison.
“The first two were pretty sweet because they were both walk-offs, but this one’s just the same,” State College’s Caleb Walls said. “It’s great to win.”
Walls doubled, tripled and scored twice to help propel the Little Lions offensively. Brandon Raquet finished 2 for 4 with two RBIs, Sam Plafcan was 3 for 4 with an RBI and Chris Boal’s two-run single highlighted the decisive four-run sixth.
Oliver Dailey picked up the win after pitching 2 1/3 scoreless innings of relief, and Bailey Ishler went 1 1/3 scoreless innings to earn the save.
State College (17-5) will face DuBois in a PIAA Class AAAA play-in game Thursday at Philipsburg-Osceola High School.
The victory was the product of months of preparation, starting with 6 a.m. open gyms in January.
The Little Lions, except those with other commitments, worked out twice a week, taking batting practice, throwing bullpens and doing infield work.
“You show up and it’s dark and it’s cold and you don’t want to be there,” Boal said. “But you strap on the sneakers and you just get to work. So to put it all in perspective and to be in a beautiful field and have a game go our way is nice. It really makes it worth it.”
State College coach Bill Tussey said he’s put his teams through the early morning workouts during his entire tenure at State College.
“For me, it’s kind of a joy,” Tussey said. “One, I’m a morning person, so I’m up anyway. But the other part is just to see that’s the kind of dedication this group has. They’re willing to get up at 5:30 to get into the gym (at) 6 o’clock, two mornings a week.”
The dedication was rewarded Tuesday.
State College took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first after Walls tripled and scored on a groundout by Chris Adams. Altoona (16-5) evened the score on an RBI groundout by Ben Foose in the bottom of the second.
The Little Lions regained the lead in the third on an RBI groundout by Raquet, but Altoona answered in the fourth against State College starter Kyle Peterson.
Foose singled up the middle and advanced to second on a fielder’s choice. John McGinley then sent a double down the left field line, the ball rolling to the wall and scoring two runs to give Altoona a 3-2 lead.
McGinley advanced to third, and Dailey then replaced Peterson on the mound.
Dailey got a strikeout and a flyout to end the inning.
State College still trailed 3-2 heading into the sixth.
“We just knew we had to get runners on base,” Walls said. “We had to get something going. We had to scratch and claw, get a few runs around and put pressure on ‘em.”
Walls led off with a double down the left field line, and Adams followed with a single to end Altoona starting pitcher Trentin Martin’s day.
Zack Helsel, a right-handed pitcher with a sidearm delivery, entered to face Plafcan, who singled up the middle to score Walls and tie the game at 3-3. Adams was moving on the pitch and advanced to third.
Tyler Hall later drew a walk to load the bases with one out for Boal.
Boal hit a chopper that took a big hop over the head of Altoona third baseman Elliot Mast and into left field. Two runs scored and State College led 5-3.
“This is the nicest field I’ve ever played on,” Boal said. “But I hit it hard right off against the ground and it just took a big hop and then I moved up to second rounding first so the grass came in clutch for me a little bit.”
Raquet’s bloop single to left field capped the inning and gave the Little Lions a 6-3 lead. State College finished with five hits in the inning after managing a combined five hits in the first five innings.
Tussey said his team benefited from the pitching change as Helsel threw a steady dose of fastballs.
“We are a much better fastball hitting team than a curveball, so that’s why we just got a little more aggressive, quite frankly,” Tussey said. “It was a pitch we felt we could handle.”
The Little Lions protected the lead the rest of the way, celebrating the championship after Ishler sealed the win with a perfect seventh inning.
“I’m just really super excited for the seniors,” Tussey said. “A couple of those boys have been with us for three years and been an integral part of all three of (the district titles), so for that senior group, they have worked so hard.
“It’s just a real pleasure to see them actually win three in a row.”